Enter the ZRX

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I started one of my bikes yesterday after it had been sitting for the past six months – the time it took for me to find the time to rebuild its front end.

Tap on – remember those? Choke set – remember that? The Keihins – carburetors! – drew breath. The 1200 cc inline four cleared its throat through pipes free of oxygen sensors and catalytic converters and 147 horsepower settled into ready idle.

My 2003 ZRX is now almost old enough to get its own learner’s permit. Seventeen years have passed since we met on the showroom floor and the day I did the thing I swore never to do – which was to buy a new motorcycle.

But I had to, this once.

The ZRX1200 – when it was new back in ’03  – was a look back at the old. It looked a lot my ’76 Kz900, which was purely intentional. My ’76 was the same basic bike as the first Japanese superbike, the Z1900. It made its shellshocking debut in 1972. You can still hear the echoes of the concussions it triggered.

903 (to be precise) cubic centimeters of DOHC aluminum air-cooled four, making a then-unheard-of 82 horsepower at 8,500 RPM – which gave the bike the ability to run the quarter mile in less than 12 seconds and achieve a top speed of nearly140 MPH.

In 1972, nothing – almost – could touch that.

For size, technology (it was the first dual overhead cam large cc bike offered for sale to the general public) or speed. It was quicker off the showroom floor than tubbed race cars that could barely hold an idle.

And which weren’t reliable. The Z1 could run flat-out for hours and not break.

It got 40 miles-per-gallon, too.

The big Zeds – as they were and still are called –  dominated the street and the track like nothing before or since. There were fast bikes before the Z1, it’s true. The heavily modified BMW R69S that set the 24 endurance record for speed at LeMans in 1961 was one. Also the Vincent Black Shadow. And the monstrous two-strokes of the early ’70s, including Kawasaki’s own H series bikes, among them the infamous H2 750.

But the difference was the Zed was reasonably safe to ride fast – the H2 widowmaker wasn’t – and almost anyone could ride a Zed whereas you had to be a racer – or very rich – to afford a bike like the Black Shadow or a heavily modified BMW R69S capable of averaging 109.6 MPH for 24 hours straight.

The Zed could do that without mods. It made anyone a racer, anytime they felt like it. And you could ride it everyday, anywhere. It was a cross-country-capable superbike – and that was as much a first as its DOHC four and the performance it delivered.

Power – and reliability.

And you didn’t need a racing license or trust fund to buy one, either. Just amble over to your Kawasaki store and sign the papers – which didn’t entail signing your life away. It only took $1,895 to ride away on a new Zed 900 – about $11k in today’s money and less money than the cost of a new 1972 Corvette – which cost twice as much ($5,553) and didn’t go twice as fast.

Or nearly as quickly, either.

A 12 second quarter mile back in ’72 was what a nine second quarter mile is today. And even today, not many cars can run the quarter in 12 seconds. A ‘70s Zed is still as quick as almost all current high-performance cars. It takes a modern high performance motorcycle to beat one.

Enter the ZRX.

It was commissioned in the late ’90s to recall the Z1 and its iterations of the ’70s and early ’80s, most especially the green/white/black 1100 that Eddie Lawson rode to victory in the Superbike series.

It looked almost exactly like Eddie’s race bike – until you looked closer. Then you saw the radiator. The new bike was water-cooled, a necessary concession to its much higher horsepower. It had better brakes – and much better tires. But the engine was still a big DOHC four, unfaired – where you could see it.

A bigger DOHC four.

At first, an 1100 and then – my bike – a 1200. It had the same – or similar – massive tube-aluminum rear swingarm and dual rear shocks, black-painted header and dual upside-right (non-inverted) forks.

Four Keihins. No computer. A five-speed transmission. No electronic assists of any kind.

A big, brutal bike – just like its ancestor. You muscled it through the curves; its muscle raised the front wheel off the ground as you charged down the straights. A much higher top speed – especially when modded, as mine has been and which you can do just as easily, with hand tools, because (wait for it) no computer and no electronics – without the speed wobbles.

It was new, but also old . . . in all the right ways.

I was sold.

And I won’t ever sell it. That would be like selling one’s kid, almost.

The ZRX has become what my Kz already was when I acquired it – which is to say, old. In fact as well as spirit. The Kz is, of course, thirty years older. But the ZRX is itself almost 20 years old now and that make it almost as much a piece of history as the bike which inspired it. Because nothing new hasn’t got a computer, or upside-down forks, or cats or fuel-injection in place of the bellowing Keihins.

There is no choke to set; no tap to turn on, either. Not much to wrench. They just kind of are – like a cell phone. You have what you get.

The new bikes are faster – but aren’t fiercer. They do not send concussions echoing through the ages. They come – and they go.

They are nothing special.

The ZRX is irreplaceable.

. . .

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  1. I have always had my eye on that green ZRX. Even today when by rare chance one comes up for sale.
    It was always on the short list. 🙂

    • Thanks, Bear!

      My ’03 ZRX is the only bike I ever bought new. I had to have one. It rang my bell because in so many ways, it is much like my ’76 Kz900 – but it is also modern in some good ways, too. Such as a much better suspension and brakes! But the riding experience is very similar. It’s a great bike. They’re both great bikes. Heck, I’ve never had a Kaw was a bad bike. Or a Honda, for that matter – and I’ve had a bunch of them, too!

  2. Hi Eric,

    Your bikes with a kickstart, do you actually use the kickstart? I have a Royal Enfield Classic 500. It is the rare new bike with a kickstart. I use the kickstart 90% of the time. I learned to ride on a 1973 Honda CB750. It didn’t even require half a kick to fire up the engine.

  3. Hands down one of the most beautiful bikes ever made. Perfection. I had a KZ1000 that was one of my all time favorite bikes. Fast, good looking, extremely comfortable, and a joy to own. My dream at the time was to buy an ELR and I got as far as buying a tank from an original ELR, but unfortunately never got any farther. Regret.

  4. Very cool bike Eric. Love it. But to be fair I like all bikes. That one of yours is special for sure. The 80’s and 90’s was utopia for American’s racing GP. I did it too during that timeframe, trying to chase down the factory guys at the nationals. Got close but not close enough, haha. My blood still boils watching it.
    Re: new stuff, my past 20 years has been racing off-road, and I currently have lots of them. Recently, even the off-road 2-stroke engines are all going injected. I think they’ve been forced too, so I doubled down and bought a couple of the last carbureted smokers, and glad I did. The new injected 2-strokes are having teething troubles, to be expected, yet I’ve been able to ‘tune’ my smokers to my liking myself.
    More bike articles/stories please!

  5. Eric, if you are going to loosen the bolts and take the seals out I can highly recommend a Race Tech parts rebuild. I did my old ST1100 with their stuff (broke the bank in the process). But created a new canyon carver touring bike that almost steers itself through the curves.

  6. A cat converter on a Motorbike is using more resources whose mining causes lots of air and land pollution. The amount of unburned pollution on a motorbike is really nonexistent compared to a big truck. And no doubt the weight of the cat does more to imperil the safety of the rider. The idiots who proposed that incredibly stupid law need to be thrown into a pit full of hungry crocodiles.

  7. Eric,

    Did you mean to say that the brakes on your ’76 weren’t good? I had a ZRX1100 for a while, and that thing had KILLER brakes; I briefly locked the front wheel once and scared myself! My 1100 had two pizza pan sized front disks, and I’m sure that the 1200 has ’em too. I can’t believe that the 1200’s brakes were or are bad.

    Concerning the 1000 that Eddie Lawson raced, he had a 120 rear tire-a 120! The ZRX1100 had a 170 rear, while the 1200 has a 180, IIRC. I dare say that the modern street oriented sportbike rubber that the ZRX uses is better than the race tires Eddie Lawson used. I can’t believe they raced on 120 rear tires 40 years ago-wow. That’s a testament to how GOOD the racers were in the old days…

  8. I think it’s easier to justify buying it new when you intend on keeping it forever. You can keep it the way you want from day one, not having to deal with the neglect or abuse of a prior owner.


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